By P. Kharel
News media are a regular diet for the general public. As potent sources of effective and speedy dissemination of information, the news media can be effective vehicles for individuals and institutions to reach large masses with messages they wish delivered speedily, supported by credibility.
There are more than 125 dailies, two scores of them broadsheets, covering most districts. No less than 550 FM radio stations are on air, almost all airing regular news bulletins. If nearly a score of Nepali TV channels compete for audiences, 600-plus online services are formally registered.
PROMISED ACCESS: Competition accelerates the race in breaking stories, and with it media credibility. With growing competition and professionalism, they need to press for more transparency and greater pro-activism in public institutions for information sharing with the press and the public.
A quarter of a century after Nepal became the first country in South Asia guaranteeing the right to information to its people, access to and dissemination of information remains much to be desired. Even nine years after the appropriate Act was finally approved, there continues to be delay and debate as to “what” information to make public and which to withhold.
Any institution’s image and credibility largely depends on its visibility, mobility and, last but not the least, activity. Essential are deepening of understanding; holding out prospects for new avenues to move forward; and maxmimising public participation and legitimising media contents in keeping with the desire to deliver the professional best. This way media credibility is enhanced and loyal following among the reading, listening and viewing audiences grows.
Ethics would say no to be active participants in sponsored activity for news reporters and media institutions. Attractive gifts to journalists and fellowships are some of the tricks of the trade employed by public relations sections of business institutions and government agencies.
Governments, political groups, INGOs, NGOs and business firms have budgets for public relations, promotional and propaganda activity that includes free trips, attractive allowances, awards, fellowships, lucrative packages for motivated articles and “expert” opinions on broadcast media and the like. Different agencies, government or private, try using money in seducing and reducing journalists to compromising positions.
Nepali media are unwilling to engage in a critical debate on their operations and performance in public. Walter Lippmann, a noted democratic theorist and commentator on public affairs, advised in the first of the last century that “the public must be put in its place” so that the “responsible men” were able to “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd”.
If journalist groups function as mouthpieces under the banners of any particular individual or institution, their credibility falls. Persuasion of the media is a temporary solution; conviction is durable. Gate-keeping in a democratic society is also conducted by professional journalism. Hostile media are predators that manipulate their station in society to overemphasise their presence and exaggerate their role in society.
Journalism is the art of doubting and pursuing facts and pressing questions. Hence the critical issue of addressing their needs and queries on the one hand, and expecting consistently professional service. Preparedness should match the demands of an institution’s thrust and public expectations. Is an issue or information newsworthy? The best should be done for a meeting point that serves both sides.
The 2015 Constitution of Nepal accords a special status to the press and right to information, whose letter and spirit, therefore, denote a democratic duty to inform the people with speed through various means of communication, including mass communication, at the earliest and as extensively as possible.
Promoting the right to information is a task entailing not only briefing journalists but informing the public in general as well. Since the news media reach large numbers audiences at great speed, journalists are usually invited first for briefings by individuals and institutions.
DECORATIVE: In Nepal’s case, the right to information is a decorative provision in the constitution. The National Information Commission never tires of making utterances on the obvious significance of right to information but it hardly bothers to be proactive in encouraging and enabling people to obtain information. This must because of its misplaced sense of justification of its existence.
The prevailing climate is such that, when the crunch comes, public institutions can plead inability to give specific information. They plead that they are not aware about which information to supply and which to withhold from the public.
We have numerous miles to travel through obstacles-strewn path in this deceptive, highly secretive, corruption-ridden, incompetent political society. The biggest hurdle: most journalists are affiliated to one political party or the other. If the Federation of Nepalese Journalists has about 11,000 members, the total number of “journalists” affiliated to four of the larger political parties is estimated at over 15,000!
Without an independent, free and fair media sector, any nation is too heavily shackled to maximise its potential into reality.